Spy kids: Are we trying to normalise surveillance for the next generation?

Schools have began to monitor computer use and web browsing on their computers. In over 1000 secondary schools across England and Wales, “classroom management software” is being used to monitor the screens of students from the safety of a teacher’s desktop. This software, revealed by a freedom of information request is running on over 800,000 computers, laptops and mobiles in schools, tracking the historical and real time web activities of students.

Unveiled in a report by Big Brother Watch (BBW), the reasons for such surveillance is unclear. BBW speculate the schools have been under pressure to install the software as part of anti-extremism strategy ‘Prevent’ or the recent ‘Keeping Children Safe in Education’ programme. The systems can alert school administration of students exhibiting ‘bad’ behaviour and signs of ‘radicalisation’. It is also presented as a way to fight cyber-bullying, prevent teen sexting and identify ‘at risk’ pupils who might be suicidal.

There is further controversy with gaining the consent of the pupils the software is used on. Only 15% of schools provided an “acceptable use” policy to sign to confirm their allowance of computer surveillance, and only 10% mentioned the software, in basic terms without explanation of the full extent of scrutiny. It is a breach of data protection law, which will likely be clamped down on by an incoming 2018 EU regulation, which will force any organisation gathering data on individuals to explicitly inform them why their information is being gathered, needing to gain informed consent from the person.

This software on the surface looks as though it has good intentions, to protect children from the dangers of the Internet. It stores personal information about children and has potential to use the invasive software in ways that gravely breach privacy. The 2010 case of Robbins v. Lower Merion School District shows how surveillance software in the hands of IT techs and school administrators can be used to spy on kids in disturbing ways. Two high schools revealed that they had secretly taken more than 66,000 images through remotely activated macbook cameras, only revealed to the public when they suspended a student for “behaviour in the home” accusing him of drug dealing.

Children in today’s climate have less freedom than ever before when it comes to communication technology, as applications are now widely avaliable to track children’s communications and internet presence. The UK government and it’s educational bodies have not learned from the Robbins case. Perhaps they will need a similar scandal to see the danger in normalisation of widespread surveillance of children, but also the quiet delegation of spy tools to regular people who have little experience complying with data protection.

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